‘All Your Hard Work’ Pays Off at the Lillian Theatre

Production photo by Michael Lamont
Production photo by Michael Lamont

By Susan JAMES

Imagine you’re in the living room of a 30-something single someone you’ve just met when she receives an unexpected visit from a former college lover. Nine years ago these two were close but things ended badly and they haven’t seen each other since. It all seems perfectly civilized for a while but among the small talk and reminiscences awkward truths begin to emerge. You grow uncomfortable as the verbal jabs ratchet up the emotional pressure. You’d like to leave but you can’t. Suddenly the drama gets explosive and as the clothes come off, the truths come out. It’s a raw reality show. You’re riveted.

This is the view from the audience at Miles Brandman’s new play, “All Your Hard Work,” now at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood. Presented by the Brimmer Street Theatre Company and directed by Michael Matthews, the one-act, two-character drama stars Michael Grant Terry as Jim and Amy K. Harmon as Mary-Ellen. The Lillian Theatre is a good match for the play. A small, in-the-round playhouse of less than 100 seats, it allows for a theatrical intimacy that brings the audience literally into Mary-Ellen’s cramped living space and intensifies its response to the emotions unraveling just feet away.

Meeting again after nine years, Jim is a successful, self-assured guy with a wife and child who claims to be in town on a business trip. On a whim he’s decided to look up his former girlfriend.

Mary-Ellen is 30, unmarried, in a routine job, unsatisfied with her life and harboring envious thoughts about all those girlfriends now married with families. Has Jim come over to her crummy studio apartment to chat about old times, cook her dinner or play at seduction? Nervous and uncertain of her own responses, Mary-Ellen isn’t sure.

Amy K. Harmon brings a tightly coiled intensity to Mary-Ellen, a woman whose dreams never came true and who is trying very hard not to blame herself. Michael Grant Terry’s Jim makes the most of his boyish grins and bar stool banter that implode as the evening goes on into a hollow crater of self-doubt and despair. Jim is at once charming, vaguely repellent and compellingly sympathetic in his confused humanity and overwhelming need.

As Jim flaunts his success, boasts about his child and derides his former girlfriend’s lack of ambition, Mary-Ellen waivers between the desire to kick him out and the desire to revisit the past by sleeping with him. Just as she decides on the former, the truth about Jim’s real reasons for visiting stop her in her tracks.

A little “Sex in the City” seasoned by a dash of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?”, Jim and Mary-Ellen’s combative dialogue volleys across the stage like a tennis match. The hectic beginning of the play ultimately settles down to a duel between two very contemporary people who have bought into the popular definition of happiness. One is living the life advertised as a picture of success and one is living a life perpetually on the brink. But which one is actually happy?

Produced by Ken Werther and Michael Bulger, the play runs at the Lillian Theatre Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 25.

An Interview with Michael Grant Terry

Q: You’re mostly known for your work on television. What does coming back to live theater mean to you as an actor?
A: That’s where I started and this is harder than anything else. Seventy-five minutes with two people on stage in the round – if you can do this, you can do anything. There’s also no feeling like Amy (co-star Amy K. Harmon) and I backstage five minutes before going on – that exhilaration. I love the action and the play off the audience. The journey you go on in the theater is unlike any other feeling – to do two hours and then you’re done … whereas how to sustain that over multiple takes [in TV] or shooting completely out of order. It’s a different thing. I love it, too. But there’s nothing like this and I will always do theater.

Q: What drew you to this play?
A: I had seen Miles’ play, “Summer in Hell” two years ago and he brought this to me. I think a two-person drama that’s this natural and this subtle for stage was really interesting. I’m also attracted to characters who have a really wonderful downfall. And [my character] Jim starts off as this put-together positive person and just strips down literally and you just see how raw he is. And there’s comedy in it too. Where I am right now as an actor, that’s definitely what I look for, that wonderful arc that the character would have.

Q: You’ve recently written a 12-minute short, “Byron’s Theme.” What was that experience like?  
A: We literally are about to completely lock “Byron’s Theme” in the next week and start submitting it to tons of festivals. One of my good friends, Bennett Barbakow, is a commercial director and musician and we’re writing partners. We wrote this short a year ago and said let’s just do this for fun, something that’s ours completely, and we produced it and I starred in it and we just started getting these wonderful people on-board – an amazing cinematographer, amazing musicians to do a completely original score and we shot it over the course of like three months because we both have other jobs. And I’m pretty excited about it. We’re working on some other scripts together right now, too. With us it’s just a natural thing. I’ll write 30 pages and he’ll write 30 pages and we can’t remember who wrote what.

Q: You play Wendell Bray on the Fox Hit Series “Bones.” What is it like working on set?  
A: We’re all best friends and we all get along fantastically. I think that’s what makes the show so good is that everybody’s so happy and we laugh on set all the time.

Q: All of the actors who play squinterns on “Bones” recently shot an upcoming episode together called “The Patriot In Purgatory.” Did you enjoy it?  
A: That was really fun and we were all like, why can’t we do this everyday? It’s a little bit of a darker episode but beautifully dark. I mean Stephen Nathan wrote that episode and he did a really good job of just touching on the subject [of 9/11] but not kneading it too much. I’m excited to see it.